I'm trying to cut out all analysis, observation, description, even the
picture-making quality, in order to make things and people tell their own story
simply by juxtaposition, without any persuasion or explanation on my part. Just as
if I put here on the table a green vase, and beside it a yellow orange. Now, those
two things affect each other. Side by side, they produce a reaction which neither
of them will produce alone. Why should I try to say anything clever, or by any
colorful rhetoric detract attention from those two objects, the relation they have
to each other and the effect they have upon each other? I want the reader to see
the orange and the vase-beyond that, I am out of it.... One must choose one's
audience, and the audience I try to write for is the one interested in the effect
the green vase brings out in the orange, and the orange in the green vase.
I'm trying to cut out all analysis, observation, description, even the picture-making quality, in order to make things and people tell their own story simply by juxtaposition, without any persuasion or explanation on my part.
Just as if I put here on the table a green vase, and beside it a yellow orange. Now, those two things affect each other. Side by side, they produce a reaction which neither of them will produce alone. Why should I try to say anything clever, or by any colorful rhetoric detract attention from those two objects, the relation they have to each other and the effect they have upon each other? I want the reader to see the orange and the vase-beyond that, I am out of it.... One must choose one's audience, and the audience I try to write for is the one interested in the effect the green vase brings out in the orange, and the orange in the green vase.
An author who is "out of it," composition by juxtaposition: the above credo seems quite clearly a document of modernism. One can be forgiven for not recognizing these words as Willa Cather's, as given in a 192-1 interview with Latrobe Carroll (216). But seventy-odd years later the case for Cather as a crypto-modernist, a modernist in nineteenth-century clothing, seems rather persuasive. And Cather's tendencies toward modernism are nowhere clearer than in The Professor's House, a novel built upon thematic, formal, and imagistic juxtapositions-of contemporary Midwestern town and ancient cliff-dwelling culture, of third- and first-person narrative, of not the green vase and the yellow orange but the dull silver and turquoise of Rosamond Marsellus's bracelet.
Though Cather is elsewhere careful to distance herself from art that too loudly
proclaims a break with the old, her comments on the relation of The Professor's
House to visual art and sonata form are unmistakable evidence of her own
desire to make it new. And her comment to Carroll is particularly striking in that it points toward an
idea of the novel not as narrative but as image, as if placing objects against one
another in space were indeed a way to tell a (temporal) story. Thus it is altogether
appropriate that in its structure The Professor's House bears an affinity to
an overtly modern aesthetic of juxtaposition, namely, the idea of the image
propounded by the French poet Pierre Reverdy (1889-1960), whose poetry forms a verbal
approximation of the juxtapositions of cubist painting and collage. In his 1918 essay
"L'Image," Reverdy offers the following statement on the image:
Elle ne peut naître d'une comparaison mais du rapprochement de deux
réalités plus ou moins éloignées. Plus les
rapports des deux réalités rapprochées seront lointains
et justes, plus l'image sera forte-plus elle aura de puissance émotive et
de réalité poétique. Deux réalités qui n'ont aucun rapport ne peuvent se rapprocher
utilement. Il n'y a pas création d'image. Deux réalités contraires ne se rapprochent pas. Elles
Elle ne peut naître d'une comparaison mais du rapprochement de deux réalités plus ou moins éloignées.
Plus les rapports des deux réalités rapprochées seront lointains et justes, plus l'image sera forte-plus elle aura de puissance émotive et de réalité poétique.
Deux réalités qui n'ont aucun rapport ne peuvent se rapprocher utilement. Il n'y a pas création d'image.
Deux réalités contraires ne se rapprochent pas. Elles s'opposent. (73)
Though Reverdy offers no explanatory examples, his emphasis is clear: the image as an unexpected conjunction of likeness and unlikeness, a matter neither of comparison (as in a metaphysical conceit, or more broadly, metaphor itself, with tenor riding vehicle) nor of mere dissonance.
Reverdy's idea of the image offers a surprisingly exact way to think about the relation between the two realities of The Professor's House, an image in the form of a novel, a conjunction of two worlds that bear "distant and correct" relations to one an other. More than a mere contrast between noble past and degraded present, the relation between Cliff City and Hamilton is of far greater emotive power, as each embodies a conflict between the competing obligations of private life and communal life, the double life that Cather describes in her essay "Katherine Mansfield": One realizes that even in harmonious families there is this double life: the group life, which is the one we can observe in our neighbour's household, and, underneath, anothersecret and passionate and intense-which is the real life that stamps the faces and gives character to the voices of our friends. Always in his mind each member of these social units is escaping, running away, trying to break the net which circumstances and his own affections have woven about him. One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life; that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them. (109)
What is most remarkable is that Cather establishes the relation between Cliff City and Hamilton not only in theme but in abundant parallels of detail that mark specific "distant and correct" correspondences. While a handful of these details have been noted in passing in previous criticism, their full presence in and relevance to The Professor's House have not been fully recognized. Their multiplicity and resonance suggest that in ways both large and small The Professor's House is indeed an image in the form of a novel, a conjunction of two realities with surprising correspondences.
We can begin mapping these correspondences with a single phrase from Tom Outland, his characterization of the Blue Mesa as "a world above the world" (240), a phrase that captures nicely the competing obligations of the double life. Outland's words suggest communal aspiration: they are typically read as a gloss on the lost culture of Cliff City, in accordance with Father Duchene's comment on the Blue Mesa as a place where "humanity has . . . lifted itself out of mere brutality," the home of a "superior people"(221, 219). But the phrase "a world above the world" is also a fair description of St. Peter's attic study, a place that offers him "isolation, insulation from the engaging drama of domestic life," with no one "trampling over him'! (26). To rest in a neat symmetry, however-Cliff City, group life; attic study, private life-would be to ignore Cather's insistence on the copresence of competing obligations. St. Peter's study is hardly "above" the affairs of the world; it is in fact the site of numerous discussions of familial discord and financial complications, often occasioned by unannounced visitors. And Outland's characterization of "a world above the world" has an ironic relation to his own presence on the Blue Mesa: his words refer not to the culture of Cliff City but to the mesa itself ("the feeling of being on the mesa, in a world above the world" ), soon to be the site of his own isolation, his months of living alone in the cabin that he built with Rodney Blake. Outland's insistence upon absolute principle (the inviolability of Cliff City's artifacts, above commerce) and his forsaking of Blake leave him in a solitary world above the world, having placed principle above any consideration of Blake's reasons for selling the artifacts that the two uncovered. As Outland himself recognizes, the pleasures of his solitary months on the mesa involve a "heartlessness" that frightens him (252), and as he remarks to St. Peter, "anyone who requites faith and friendship as I did, will have to pay for it" (253). Indeed, the image of a young man reading Virgil under a Cliff City cedar suggests an almost dandyish indifference to human relations. Outland rather blithely recalls, "I'd forget all about Blake without knowing it" (252). The lack of mere contrast between these two worlds is clear: Cliff City and St. Peter's attic study are sites of both elements of the double life; the relation between these sites is one that is "distant and correct."
But Cather moves well beyond thematic relation with abundant parallels of detail between these two worlds, parallels that range in effect from irony to poignance. Both Cliff City and the attic study are a matter of difficult travel-the mesa's "hazardous trails," which threaten the loss of life (213), and St. Peter's "perilous journey down through the human house [during which] he might lose his mood, his enthusiasm, even his temper" (27), an ironic reminder of the contrast between Cliff City's struggles and those of St. Peter. More subtly, Cather places each location in relation to a figurative sustaining ocean: Cliff City faces "an ocean of clean air" (213); the attic study's window looks onto Lake Michigan, "the inland sea" of St. Peter's childhood (29). Thus Cather extends the well-known analogy of the Dutch Interior- "I wanted to open the square window and let in the fresh air that blew off the Blue Mesa" ("Literary Experimentation" 192)- from St. Peter's attic to Cliff City itself, which also opens onto an ocean of sorts.
More particular details of interior establish further parallels. Outland describes Cliff City's back courtyard as "a long, low, twilit space that got gradually lower toward the back until the rim rock met the floor of the cavern, exactly like the sloping roof of an attic" (208-9) and rather like St. Peter's own "dark den" (16). The back courtyard features several clay ovens, a spring, and water jars (209); St. Peter's attic holds his rusty gas stove and a private stock of sherry, "his wine" (102). Cliff City's decorated walls, "frescoed in geometrical patterns" or adorned with "a painted border" of tents (213), have their comic counterpart in St. Peter's once ugly but now inoffensive wallpaper (16). Even Cliff City's "yucca-fibre mats" (208) have their double in the attic's "matting on the floor" (16). Here again Cather suggests relationships both "distant and correct." The slope of Cliff City's ceiling ends in a site of communal life, the location of what Outland calls "a kind of common kitchen" (209) and the source of the community's water, while St. Peter's stove and sherry are elements of his solitude. Frescoed walls and yucca mats suggest a communal aesthetic and sense of comfort; St. Peter's wallpaper and "worn and scratchy" matting (16) suggest a decided lack of interest in his own comfort. (Hence the irony of an otherwise inexplicable detail regarding his shopping expedition with Rosamond: "He was supposed to know a good deal about rugs, too" ) Cather has constructed a relation both "distant and correct": those details of Cliff City that suggest communal life and comfort find their counterparts in details that attest to one person's private pleasures and discomforts.
The relation between these two worlds is further evident in correspondences between Cliff City and St. Peter's garden. Outland describes Cliff City's front courtyard as bordered by a "low stone wall" and a "fringe of cedars . . . like a garden" (208, 201). But only like a garden: "The court-yard was not choked by vegetation, for there was no soil. It was bare rock, with a few old, flat-topped cedars growing out of the cracks, and a little pale grass" (208). The front courtyard bears an unmistakable resemblance to St. Peter's "walled-in garden," a French anomaly in Hamilton: "There was not a blade of grass; it was a tidy half-acre of glistening gravel and glistening shrubs and bright flowers. There were trees, of course; a spreading horse-chestnut, a row of slender Lombardy poplars at the back, along the white wall, and in the middle two symmetrical, round-topped linden-trees" (14-15). Yet there is a significant difference between these spaces. Aside from its wall, the cliff dwellers' courtyard is a matter of something found, not made; as Father Duchene remarks, the inhabitants of Cliff City "built themselves into this mesa and humanized it" (221). St. Peter's grassless garden, in contrast, is the work of twenty years spent getting "the upper hand" (15), and there is quite a difference between humanizing a place and getting the upper hand of it: the cliff dwellers find natural life amid bare rock, while St. Peter imposes bare rock upon the soil and its natural life. He is, in this odd respect, a grotesque, harmless version of his Spanish adventurers, conquering and killing what he encounters, imposing a foreign idea of order.
Although St. Peter's garden serves a private purpose as "the comfort of his life" (14), to rest in a contrast between common courtyard and private garden would be to simplify the particulars of the case, for the competing obligations of the double life figure in St. Peter's garden as in his study. Begun after Rosamond's birth, when St. Peter could no longer spend as much time alone at the lake or tennis court, the garden, like the attic, is a space within a space, embodying both an acknowledgment of the demands of family and an insistence upon privacy nonetheless. Cather's strategy, again, is hardly rigid: the garden, like the study, is not simply a solitary retreat. It does serve as such during the summers, when Lillian, Rosamond, and Kathleen go west and St. Peter lives as "a bachelor again" (15). Yet St. Peter has his landlord's help with its construction (14); he spends time there with Tom Outland (15, 176); Kathleen plays alone there as a child (88); and the garden is the scene of numerous conversations between Outland and St. Peter's young daughters (125). And like the study, the garden has its unannounced visitors: it is there that Tom Outland first finds St. Peter one Saturday morning (112).
The most poignant and enigmatic correspondences between Cliff City and St. Peter's world concern particulars not of places but of persons-the corpse known as Mother Eve and the professor himself. A likeness between Mother Eve and the attic's dress forms has been noted in previous criticism, and Cather has again established a parallel of detail: Mother Eve, with her "great wound in her side" and "ribs [sticking] out through the dried flesh" (214), bears a clear resemblance to the second, unnamed dress form, with "no viscera behind its glistening ribs" (A). It is clear that Mother Eve and the dress forms are relics of past forms of life-the lost Cliff City and the early history of St. Peter's family, "back in the years when holidays were holidays indeed" (100-101) and his daughters' "party frocks used to hang on them at night" (60). There is also a shared suggestion of duplicity: Father Duchene suspects that Mother Eve was caught in adultery and murdered by her husband (223), and the dress forms are associated in various ways with deception: the first looks inviting, but "if you touched it you suffered a severe shock" at its hardness (18); the second looks like "a woman of light behaviour, but she never fooled St. Peter.... he had never been taken in by one of her kind!" (19). Yet there seems to be no plausible way to establish a four-term homology that would link such deceptions with the early history of St. Peter's faimily.
As Cather's correspondences move toward disparate, multiple meanings, a link between Mother Eve and St. Peter seems entirely plausible. Both are young in a way that marks them as out of place: Cliff City's three other corpses are those of old people (215); Lillian St. Peter remarks to her husband, "You are not old enough for the pose you take" (16z), a comment that has unusual resonance in relation to his later conviction that he is to die soon. Both Mother Eve and St. Peter are left behind by their communities: at least Father Duchene speculates that "perhaps when the tribe went down to the summer camp, our lady was sick and would not go" (223), and St. Peter of course chooses to remain behind when Lillian and the Marselluses sail to France for the summer. (Mother Eve remains behind a second time as well: as Rodney Blake says, "She refused to leave," plunging to the bottom of Black Canyon on a mule while being removed from Cliff City , and one might even link this fall with St. Peter's fall in the gas-filled, "pitch-black" attic .) Both experience a private, silent agony: Mother Eve's mute, frozen scream, her mouth open in "terrible agony" (214), finds its analogue in St. Peter's unnamed, unspoken grief. Both are found lying on a floor and then tended to with blankets (214, 277). And as if to seal the connection, Cather places Mother Eve not in Cliff City itself but "in a high arch" that Tom Outland calls the Eagle's Nest (214): like St. Peter, she too is found at a higher altitude, in a world above a world.
The "distant and correct" relationship between Mother Eve and St. Peter-captured in twin images of a body on a floor, caught in a private, unexplained agony-suggests that their different stories form a double narrative of the double life. It is telling that critical accounts celebrating Cliff City as an ideal image of communal life have difficulty acknowledging Mother Eve's agony. She is sometimes missing altogether, as in David Stouck's characterization of the mesa as a "pastoral center in the novel," a place of "purity and beauty," "fixed in 'immortal repose"' (104), a characterization that takes no account of Mother Eve's fixed scream. Fritz Oehlschlaeger offers a similarly elegiac reading of Cliff City, suggesting that "the mesa image imaginatively lifts life with others above the world" only to be destroyed by another tribe on the plains below (84). Yet destruction can come from within as well as from without, as Mother Eve's fate attests: all indications are that Cliff City was never discovered by intruders, that Mother Eve's murderer must therefore have been a member of the cliff dwellers' community. For Oehlschlaeger, who leaves this question aside, Mother Eve represents "unfaithfulness and corruption" (77), and he suggests that women in the novel are "of the world, the world below the mesa and the attic" (77), a difficult position to uphold when Cliff City itself is below the mesa and Mother Eve is found above Cliff City proper, in a place analogous to St. Peter's attic. James Maxfield adopts a strategy similar to Oehlschlaeger's, calling Cliff City a "perfect form of the ideal society" (79), with Mother Eve cast as a symbol of "evil" (80), "an example of how selfish personal desires disrupt the harmony of society" (79).
But if we are to take Cather's account of the double life at its word, we must acknowledge the inevitability of personal desire and of what Father Duchene, with unwitting accuracy, calls "personal tragedy" (223), what Cather calls private life "secret and passionate and intense" ("Katherine Mansfield" 109). To say so is not to make a case for adultery, much less murder; it is only to insist that a wholly communal life is, on Cather's terms, ideal, fictive, and that Cliff City is more than its communal courtyards. Or, to paraphrase Cather, one realizes that even in harmonious societies there is this double life, the agony of St. Peter's near suicide, of Mother Eve's scream.
In this novel of images it is fitting that the theme of the double life finds its most inventive expression in a pair of figures that suggest the difficulty of integrating the claims of private life and group life. One, an elaborate simile, accounts for the relation between St. Peter's solitary scholarship and his family life: All the while he had been working so fiercely at his eight big volumes, he was not insensible to the domestic drama that went on beneath him. His mind had played delightedly with all those incidents. just as, when Queen Mathilde was doing the long tapestry now shown at Bayeux,-working her chronicle of the deeds of knights and heroes,-alongside the big pattern of dramatic action she and her women carried the little playful pattern of birds and beasts that are a story in themselves; so, to him, the most important chapters of his history were interwoven with personal memories. (101)
Cather's simile is intriguing, and more troublesome than critics have recognized. Its "just as" ought perhaps to make a reader initially suspicious with regard to the prospect of easy equivalence; at any rate, the more closely one looks at this comparison, the more remarkably it dissolves into uncertainties that suggest anything but interweaving. For one, the simile represents the two stories of the Bayeux tapestry not as a unified whole but as separate and unequal matters, a "big pattern" from the human realm and, alongside it, a "little pattern" from nature, whose creatures form "a story in themselves." For another, the simile suggests a reversal of the relation between house and attic, "domestic drama" and scholarly labor, making the drama of St. Peter's household a peripheral matter, with its analogue not "the big pattern of dramatic action" but "the little playful pattern" of the natural world: the most important chapters of St. Peter's history are those, not of his history, his family life, but of his books, with his family life forming a marginal accompaniment, as if the house were an adjunct to its own attic. (And to say that St. Peter is "not insensible" to the life of his house is to suggest a desultory attention to what is on the margin.) Finally, whatever weaving St. Peter has made remains private, ideal, without an achieved form. His chapters themselves do not unite his private scholarship and his domestic life; it is only that "to him, the most important chapters of his history were interwoven with personal memories" (emphasis added). Cather's simile suggests no easy union of the two elements of the double life; rather, it dramatizes the difficulty of achieving such a union, with St. Peter's personal memories functioning as a private mental accompaniment to the chapters of his books.
A second figure addresses the relationship between St. Peter and Augusta, the sewing
woman with whom he has shared his attic space. As St. Peter opens the box-couch to
retrieve her dress patterns, here is what he finds:
At one end of the upholstered box were piles of notebooks and bundles of
manuscript tied up in square packages with mason's cord. At the other end were many
little rolls of patterns, cut out of newspapers and tied with bits of ribbon,
gingham, silk, georgette; notched charts which followed the changing stature and
figures of the Misses St. Peter from early childhood to womanhood. In the middle of
the box, patterns and manuscripts interpenetrated. "I see we shall have some
difficulty in separating our life work, Augusta. We've kept our papers together a
long while now." (22-23)
"I see we shall have some difficulty in separating our life work, Augusta. We've kept our papers together a long while now." (22-23)
A literal sharing of a common space, and a poignant image, suggesting, even in St. Peter's reference to "life work" rather than "lives' work," a union with Augusta. Yet suggestions of such a union are undercut by indications that St. Peter knows very little of her. He is amazed by her comment that she never expected to work for his family for so many years: "What other future could Augusta possibly have expected?" (23); he wonders how she could know anything of his lectures: "And how do you know what I say to my classes, may I ask?" (99); he is surprised to learn that she has invested and lost money in the stock market: "Augusta? Are you sure? What a shame!" (128). Certainly the idea of a future dour solidarity with Augusta is one that the novel does not make easy to imagine; that there is for St. Peter "a world full of Augustas, with whom one was outward bound" (281) suggests innumerable solitary movements toward death rather than a communal journey. Perhaps it is only in the meeting of St. Peter's manuscripts and Augusta's patterns that Cather can present the possibility of genuine union: in an almost sexual image of interpenetration, squares and cylinders remain themselves yet meet to form a single "life work." Here again Cather has presented two realities whose relations are "distant and correct": St. Peter's manuscripts and Augusta's patterns suggest history and domesticity, mind and body, word and image, yet they both suggest design, and Cather never chooses a word more carefully that when she tells us that it is in the attic that St. Peter's notes and ideas are "woven into their proper place in his history" (25).
It is in the realm of figure and image that patterns can become "papers" and writing can become weaving, that St. Peter's work can become Augusta's work, that the separate work of two lives can become a "life work." If The Professor's House is indeed an image in the form of a novel, it is the work of an imagination that asks us to ponder the relation between turquoise and dull silver, between writing and weaving, between ancient, austere cliff dwellings and a "shabby" American attic, between the agony of Mother Eve and that of Godfrey St. Peter, between "group life" and another life, "secret and passionate and intense "- to ponder the details of, in Reverdy's words, two realities that are more or less distant from each other.